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Narcopolis

by Jeet Thayil

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Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
© The Penguin Press
The Penguin Press, 2012

Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis has received effusive praise from The Sunday Guardian ("A brilliant first novel."); Stylist ("If heroin could write, this would be its novel."); and The Telegraph("Thayil creates something original and vital... One yearns for the next hit.").

No. One does not yearn for the next hit. The major criticism of Narcopolis is the lack of coherent plot. It weaves and wobbles as revealed through the drug-induced memories of the narrator. And, frankly, it is difficult to develop an affection for the characters or the lives they live. It just does not grab and sustain one's attention.

Nevertheless, Thayil has created interesting, if uninviting, characters. Dimple is a eunuch who makes pipes in the opium den and dreams of a better life. Rumi is a husband addicted to violence. Mr. Lee is a Chinese refugee who managed to drive a stolen vehicle out of China and into Bombay. There is a vast supporting cast of pimps, prostitutes, and criminals who drop in and out as the situation demands. The variety of characters enabled Thayil to "honour the people I knew in the opium dens, the marginalised, the addicted and deranged, people who are routinely called the lowest of the low; and I wanted to make some record of a world that no longer exists, except within the pages of a book."

A recovering addict, Thayil has written an episodic, phantasmagoric account of the drug life. The very title refers to a city of narcotics. The first sentence of the novel begins, "Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story,...a great and broken city..." The opening sentence runs on for seven pages and sets the tone of the novel.
The narrator has left New York City after being caught trying to buy drugs. Upon arrival in Bombay, he immediately finds an opium den and begins his descent into the squalid world of poverty, prostitutes, and pyali. Episode after episode for year after year for more than 30 years, the drug use and casual sex continue with little evidence of redeeming social value. Appropriately, the use of "heroin" in the opening sentence is not a misspelling of "heroine." Bombay is a drug that sucks people into its seething maw.

The city, which is as much the center of the novel as the narrator, remakes itself in the course of the novel. Called Mumbai since 1995, it is now the commercial and entertainment center of India. As the novel makes clear, however, efforts to stamp out the lawlessness that it endured when the novel opens in the 1970s have not worked. Opium gave way to heroin and the raw underworld continued on its merry way.

There is poetic language and memorable characters do float in and out, but the whole is dissatisfying. It ends, "This is the story the pipe told me. All I did was write it down, one word after the other, beginning and ending with the same one, Bombay." The city, the narcopolis, is the central character around which all the human characters swarm.

Narcopolis is Thayil's first novel. An accomplished poet with four published collections, he is part of the contemporary music project Sridhar/Thayil and is the editor of a book of contemporary Indian poets.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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